A major crackdown is currently underway in North Korea to root out foreign culture, primarily from South Korea, as well as “capitalist tendencies,” including corruption. The roots of the campaign go back to early in Kim Jong Un’s tenure, but it has become particularly intensive this year, with several new laws and ordinances enacted to strengthen social control. The country’s dire economic situation and COVID-19 border lockdown, perhaps driven by conservative elements within the regime, partially explain the campaign’s renewed vigor this year. Indeed, there is tangible evidence from other parts of the world that many states have used COVID-19 as an opportunity to increase suppression of political threats. However, it is also likely a result of a cyclical dynamic, where the state intensifies social control after periods of relative relaxation.
The Current Campaign: Goals and Methods
To understand the rationale for the current campaign, consider the following example: In early October this year, Daily NK reported on a North Korean government directive to military units to strengthen ideological education following the reopening of the military hotline with South Korea. The general political bureau of the military distributed collective study materials to all military institutions, calling for soldiers to “boldly defeat imperialist schemes to ideologically and culturally infiltrate” the country and “establish a revolutionary military spirit.” In the past, the state would often overlook ideological crimes by military rank and file, a practice the government now seeks to end. This program for ideological education was launched the day after Kim Jong Un announced the restarting of the hotline. Of particular concern are young soldiers who, like young North Koreans in general, are especially likely to consume South Korean dramas, music and other foreign culture. The directive gave examples of young soldiers who had been “blinded by bourgeois ideology and culture,” such as new recruits in one battalion who had been caught performing a “strange dance” during the unit’s downtime, suggesting that it might have come from the popular South Korean pop band BTS or other “K-pop” music.
This case highlights a common dynamic in North Korean crackdowns against foreign culture; as former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho has noted, these tend to become more intense when regime contacts with the outside world increase. When ties warm—even slightly—with South Korea or the United States, the regime’s main enemies, it has to emphasize all the more strongly to the public that the enmity remains and that even though government contacts with foreign powers may be positive, cultural influences from those countries will remain fully off-limits.
But the current crackdown began long before the resumption of the hotline. Kim Jong Un has acknowledged on several instances in the past few months that the country is experiencing substantial economic difficulties, largely because of the self-imposed border lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. The current campaign partially stems from the state’s fear that the resulting discontent could threaten social stability. In parallel with increasing arrests, the regime reportedly dispatched some 2,000 senior students from its National Security College late last year—where cadres are trained for work in the security bureaucracy—to monitor the ideological tendencies of residents near the border with China. These agents were also supposedly tasked with interviewing residents who were unemployed or lacking food, and convincing them that they could rely upon the party to overcome the current crisis.
Indeed, the crackdown appears to have accelerated significantly late last year and early this year. One milestone was the 12th plenary meeting of the 14th presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament. The meeting adopted the “law on rejecting the reactionary ideology and culture,” which, according to the summary by the Korean Central News Agency:
…specifies the principles to be certainly observed by all the institutions, enterprises, organizations and citizens in further cementing our ideological, revolutionary and class positions by thoroughly preventing the inroads and spread of the anti-socialist ideology and culture and firmly maintaining our idea, spirit and culture.
In practice, the law strengthens punishments and enforcement by the state for actions that were already crimes in North Korea. In the past, corruption and contacts could often make officials turn a blind eye to North Koreans consuming foreign media and culture. The current campaign and the new law compel security agents to be more vigilant against behaviors that, while illegal, have become common in North Korean society. Information materials on the new law reportedly stipulate that distributing movies, recordings, videos or books from South Korea are punishable by life imprisonment in a labor camp or execution.
While many offenders have already received such sentences in the past, the new law seemingly cements and specifies these harsher penalties for a broader range of offenders. Although not outlined by the new law, the government has reportedly also expanded the practice of sentencing families and relatives of offenders to internal exile or labor camp—a practice that has, according to refugee testimonies and sources inside North Korea, become less common over the past few years. The law also famously bans the use of South Korean dialects and singing styles, and punishes parents of children who break the law for not raising them properly.
Moreover, the state appears to have stepped up direct surveillance efforts of electronic communications from TV sets and cell phones. In May 2020, Radio Free Asia reported that authorities were monitoring students’ text messages for South Korean slang and spelling. Overall, arrests for possession, distribution or consumption of foreign culture have reportedly increased greatly around the country. In Pyongyang, all households have allegedly been ordered to report to the authorities how many TV sets they own, and the government has checked for additional TV sets that have illegally been tuned to receive broadcasts from South Korea.
In early 2020, an editorial in North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned citizens against drinking, debauchery and other acts going counter to “socialist culture and lifestyle.” In February this year, the same outlet reported that North Korean authorities were cracking down on tinted car windows, allegedly because young North Koreans use them to hide their viewing of South Korean dramas. Over the summer, the government reportedly published a list of actions that count as “reactionary” according to the law adopted late last year. This list contains a wide range of behaviors, many of which concern citizens’ clothing styles, singing certain songs and other seemingly innocuous activities that can violate “public morals.”
Although South Korean culture is a main focus of the current crackdown, the repression is broadly aimed at violations that can threaten social stability in the eyes of the state. Therefore, it is not surprising that arrests of those who violate COVID-19 regulations, as well as supposedly corrupt officials, have increased during the same period. A significant number of people—likely tens of thousands, although no definitive information is available—have been sent to labor and prison camps for violating quarantine rules. People gathering in groups of more than three have, for example, been sentenced to hard labor. According to Daily NK, though numbers cannot be confirmed, the camp population has increased by at least 20,000 since March 2020, in response to the stern implementation of the anti-reactionary thought law and violations of quarantine and social distancing rules. Satellite imagery research by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea confirms that camps have been refurbished and expanded over the past few years, though it disputes that wholly new camps have been constructed.
The North Korean government always seeks to keep foreign information and capitalist culture out of daily life in the country, and Kim’s emphasis on social control goes back to the early days of his tenure. In many ways, the current crackdown simply amounts to an emphasis on the North Korean state and security organs doing what they were designed to do.
Indeed, crackdowns such as the present one may also come in cycles. Over the past few decades, the state, with some exceptions, consistently relaxed state control over the economy, allowing markets and the space for private initiative to grow. Such a relaxation requires the security bureaucracy to ease authoritarian pressure. These organs naturally seek, however, to expand their power and influence. Thus, although there is little empirical evidence to date, the current crackdown may reflect an effort by these institutions to regain their influence and standing as their relative role and importance have decreased due to a relaxation of economic controls.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also given ammunition to those within the state apparatus who wish to see stronger crackdowns on both economic and social misbehavior; likewise, the strict border controls—notwithstanding their disastrous economic results—may partially stem from the security state using the pandemic to further political interests. Whatever the source, this is likely far from the last such campaign under Kim Jong Un’s tenure.
I am grateful to Christopher Green and Greg Scarlatoiu for rewarding discussions about the topics covered in this article. All opinions and errors are solely those of the author.
See, for example, Donald Grasse, Melissa Pavlik, Hilary Matfess, and Travis B. Curtice, “Opportunistic Repression: Civilian Targeting by the State in Response to COVID-19,” International Security 46, no. 2 (2021): 130–165, https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00419.
This article relies in large part on reports by news outlets such as Daily NK and Radio Free Asia, who often publish stories based on a small number of sources inside North Korea. While claims by such sources typically cannot be independently verified, it is reasonable to assume that if several reports point to the same phenomena, such as increased arrests for possession of foreign culture, these reports speak of a broader dynamic and not just isolated events. At the same time, the reader should note that much of the data in this article comes from sources that cannot be independently verified.
See, for example, ”Kim Jong-un admits North Korea facing a ‘tense’ food shortage,” BBC News, June 17, 2021, accessed October 17, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57507456; and “Kim Jong-un warns of North Korea crisis similar to deadly 90s famine,” BBC News, April 9, 2021, accessed October 17, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56685356.
“12th Plenary Meeting of 14th Presidium of DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly Held,” KCNA, December 5, 2020, accessed October 14, 2021.
See, for example, Joseph Bermudez Jr., Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda Mortwedt Oh, and Rosa Parks, “North Korea’s Long-term Prison-Labor Facility Kyo-hwa-so No. 8, Sŭngho-ri (승호리) – Update,” Report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, July 22, 2021; Joseph Bermudez Jr., Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda Mortwedt Oh, and Rosa Parks, “North Korea’s Long-term Prison-Labor Facility at Sŏnhwa-dong (선화동) – Update,” Report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, August 26, 2021.
I am grateful to Christopher Green for pointing this out and for rewarding discussions about this topic.